13.03 Analytics

The Homophobes' Dream: A Putinist 'gay propaganda' law is designed to help Georgian Dream gain a lasting foothold as Georgia's ruling party

Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections will introduce constitutional amendments that significantly change the power structure in the republic. If the Georgian Dream party, which has been dominant for the past three terms, wins the elections, it is likely to establish itself as the 'ruling party' and establish the foundations of 'parliamentary authoritarianism' in the country. The main obstacle in the way of the party and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is not so much the opposition as the pro-European and mostly anti-Russian sentiments of the majority of voters. Last year, it was these sentiments that prevented the passage of the Putinist 'foreign agents' law promoted by Georgian Dream. This year, the ruling coalition is trying to reformat the electoral agenda and the lines of societal division by promoting another Putinist innovation — a law banning 'gay propaganda'. In Georgian society, which is extremely intolerant on this issue, this strategy is designed to split the pro-European majority and has a decent chance of success. The topic of combating 'gay propaganda' is becoming a universal tool for mobilising anti-liberal and anti-Western sentiments in support of authoritarian ideologies and political forces.

A new model, 'parliamentary authoritarianism' and the division of society

The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Georgia in 2024 will be quite 'momentous' for the country. The elections will be held under new rules and will implement constitutional amendments adopted several years ago, which will significantly reformat the Georgian political system. The new model assumes that the powers of the president will be reduced, and they will be elected not by direct vote but by an electoral college. Conversely, the Prime Minister, elected by parliamentary majority, will become stronger and gain greater autonomy. The parliament will be elected solely through a proportional representation system, electoral blocs will be prohibited, and a parliamentary party will only be able to form one faction.

All these amendments work in favour of the strongest party and provide it with much greater consolidation of power than before. This party — Georgian Dream — is well known, having won parliamentary elections and formed the executive during the three previous terms since 2012. 

The momentous nature of the elections is also underscored by the third return to politics by the oligarch and founding patron of the Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has been appointed as honorary chairman of the party, with the right to nominate the Prime Minister. This post will allow him to keep control over the party without directly participating in the election campaign, as noted in a commentary by Carnegie Politika. As a result, considering the constitutional changes, both the executive and legislative branches in the republic will be under the control of the party if it wins the elections.

Exactly a year ago, at the height of the conflict over the attempt to pass a Putinist 'foreign agents' law in Georgia, Re:Russia wrote that in the upcoming elections, Georgian Dream would attempt to finally consolidate its grip on power as the 'ruling party,' step by step limiting the opposition and free competition. Therefore, as the elections approach, the political situation in Georgia will heat up (→ Re: Russia: The Georgian Dream Cycle). In fact, Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream are trying to implement a scenario of 'parliamentary authoritarianism' that the Velvet Revolution prevented Serzh Sargsyan and the Republican Party of Armenia from implementing in 2018. 

At the same time, as the election date approaches, the division in Georgian society is becoming increasingly evident. Experts believe that a victory by Georgian Dream is extremely likely, but not because of its popularity rather because of the disunity and weakness of the opposition's political structures. According to autumn polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), 25% of those surveyed were willing to vote for Georgian Dream (the party's disapproval rating was 29%), while 13% of those surveyed were willing to vote for the main opposition party United National Movement (with a disapproval rating of 40%). However, although Georgian Dream's numbers are higher, the party is experiencing a decline in popularity in the medium term, the data shows. Nevertheless, the opposition's ratings are declining in roughly the same proportion, and only 60% of Georgian respondents were able to identify their party preferences. In a December poll conducted by marketing company Edison Research, 37% of those who had already made up their minds were willing to vote for 'Dream', 22% for the so-called 'Victory Platform' (an alliance of Saakashvili's United National Movement and Agmashenebeli Strategy). At the same time, 56% of those surveyed believe that the best outcome of the elections for Georgia would be the victory of the opposition, while 44% believe that the best outcome would be the victory of 'Dream'. Thus, Georgian society is facing a choice between two political forces, each of which fundamentally displeases the voters of the opposite camp. And at the same time, the new model of elections and organisation of power will allow the party with the most votes to concentrate greater power in its hands.

Agenda change and conservative mobilisation

A year ago, during street protests supported by the incumbent President Salome Zurabishvili and European politicians, the opposition managed to prevent the adoption of the law on 'foreign agents'. However, as the elections approach, another landmark initiative of 'political Putinism' is becoming a trigger for new divisions in Georgian society. At the end of February 2024, the People's Power party, which is considered a satellite of Georgian Dream, launched a campaign in favour of a bill banning 'gay propaganda'. The initiative was supported by Georgian Dream MPs and then by the new Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze. 

The latter is famous for having put Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov in his seat when he was speaker of parliament, thus provoking the mass protests that led to his resignation. Kobakhidze promoted the law on 'foreign agents' and his statements 'angered not only Georgians themselves, but also provoked conflicts between Tbilisi and its partners in the West,' notes Carnegie Politika expert Alexander Atasuntsev. Thus, his unexpected appointment as prime minister by Ivanishvili is clearly an indication of Tbilisi's further reorientation of its course away from Brussels and towards Moscow.

However, the key domestic political issue for Georgian Dream remains the commitment of Georgian society to the European choice and the process of European integration (supported by about 80% of Georgian citizens), as well as its suspicion and ill-will towards Moscow. According to an IRI poll conducted in the autumn of 2023, only 9% of those surveyed are willing to consider Russia as an 'important political partner', while 51% see the EU in this role, and 32%, the US. In response to the question of which country poses the greatest political threat to Georgia, Russia ranks first (77%) with a large gap ahead of the others. In addition, from 2014 to 2023, between 60% and 80% of respondents consistently state that Russian aggression against Georgia is still ongoing.

However, the campaign against 'homosexual propaganda' allows for the reformatting of the political agenda and activation of new lines of confrontation in Georgian society. This topic was first 'thrown' into the public sphere in the middle of last year by the Conservative Movement party and the Georgian Orthodox Church, which called on the parliament to pass a law against 'gay propaganda'. At the time, the initiative was blocked by the ruling party, as it would undoubtedly undermine the likelihood of Georgia becoming a candidate for EU accession (a status it received in December 2023). At the same time, a survey by the International Programme for Social Studies (IPSS) conducted back in 2021 showed that Georgia is extremely intolerant on this issue. At that time, 84% of those surveyed said that same-sex relationships are always wrong. Even among the younger generations (the most pro-European and those who played a key role in the protests against the law on 'foreign agents'), two thirds shared this opinion. Public confrontations between LGBTQ+ activists and the conservative public occur quite regularly in Georgia; probably the most famous such mass scuffle with no police action took place in the summer of 2021. Thus, the homophobic campaign aims to split both the pro-European unity of Georgian society and the unity in support of democratic and pro-European choices among younger generations.

Putinist innovations are spreading around the world. In addition to successful and unsuccessful attempts to adopt legislation on 'foreign agents' in a number of countries, the law on 'gay propaganda' has also become a marketable export commodity of the Russian political regime. In addition to Russia itself, a law banning the spreading of 'homosexual propaganda to children' was adopted in Kyrgyzstan in 2023, a similar draft law has been discussed in Belarus, and in Kazakhstan such a law was adopted in 2015 but almost immediately repealed by the Constitutional Court.

The topic of combatting 'gay propaganda' is increasingly becoming a universal tool for conservative mobilisation and the export of anti-Westernism. It helps to mobilise the more conservative segments of society and older generations in countering this perceived 'civilisational threat' and defending 'traditional values'. As a result, it becomes an important mechanism for mobilising support for authoritarian political ideologies and resisting ‘Western values’. The campaign in support of the adoption of the law in Georgia aims to split the pro-European majority and turn conservative 'groups' in society (including law enforcement agencies) into active supporters of pro-authoritarian forces.